I’m sure that behavioral scientists have a word for the phenomenon but I hope I never learn what it is. One of the best examples I know is a gal named Susan Roegge who I think is one of the poobahs in the District 117 school system. Once upon a time and for many years she was pianist for one of my favorite singing groups, the Arenzville-based Two by Two gospel quartet. Like a rose among singing thorns she was the sole female in the group and although the bass, tenor, baritone and lead singers were big guys, no one could take their eyes off Suzie. Once her fingers hit the keyboard something happened. It was uncontrollable. When the music started Susan’s face would light up with a smile that lit up the room. Those who study such things would tell you that her the auditory cortex of her brain was connecting with her motor cortex activating her fingers and then her cerebellum sorts things out and the result is a pleasant reaction in Susan’s amygdala which is inhibited, thus knocking out all negative thoughts. The result: Susan’s smile.
This could be chocked up to an aberrant behavior afflicting only Lutheran pianists had I not see the same thing occur in other people. My uber-talented friend Brock Gwaltney will be playing a piece of Beethoven or Mozart when for no apparent reason this same thing will occur. A smile begins on the right side of his mouth then quickly spreads to encompass his entire face. I figured there was some danger in screwing up his playing if I asked him what was going on, but I asked anyway. He told me, “I really don’t know. It just happens.” Something gets stirred in the soul and it comes out in the form of a smile.
Of course this phenomena only applies to musicians who have their hands free. If you smile while playing a trumpet you’ll no doubt be flat.
This Mystery of the Smile isn’t limited to music. My grandmother didn’t play piano and she sang very little, but I’d look at her on the afternoon of Christmas Day as she sat watching the rest of us unwrap her gifts and she’d unconsciously break into a smile that warmed the living room of her two-story frame farmhouse. She’d be stirring the cracklings of fried chicken into her milk gravy with the sound of seven rowdy male grandchildren behind her and the same thing would happen. I never asked Grandma why she was smiling, but I’m sure she’d echo Brocks, “I don’t know. It just happens.”
Sometimes joy is like old underwear. It just sort of creeps up on you.
I envy folks for whom a smile is their natural facial expression. Some people have this delightful knack while others of us are stuck with a mouth that must be forced into a grin. Our neighboring town of Rushville has an annual Smiles Day, a two-day event actually that’s peppered with parades, sales, live music, a reception for all RHS alumni, and a bit of booze that perhaps lubricates the smiles of Schuyler County for those to whom a grin doesn’t come natural. I don’t know who came up with this idea, but “Smiles Day” has a nice ring to it. Considering the current state of the world perhaps we should make it a national holiday.
Someone recently sent me a YouTube video of a young Korean girl playing the piano. It was a difficult piece requiring more dexterity than I have in my old bones, but the coolest thing happened as the music progressed. . . a smile, first tiny as she was able to relax back into the score, then a grin, then finally an explosion of joy on her face that would easily put her in the running for the next Crest Toothpaste commercial. I found myself completely ignoring the music and concentrating on the girl’s countenance. I often tell my actors that if your face is happy and interesting then the audience will likely ignore the fact that your feet are doing the wrong steps. I know some actors who just before they go onstage stand in the wings smiling as broadly as their facial muscles will allow. It’s not only good practice for taking the stage but there’s something about a smile that produces certain anti-toxins that actually relax you. Okay, I’m making that up, but it might be true.